BooksPath Reviews

Hell and High Water

Posted in Social Science by bookspath on February 28, 2007
Hell and High Water

By: Romm, Joe
Published By: HarperCollins 

Global warming is the story of the twenty-first century. It is the most serious issue facing the future of humankind, and American energy and environmental policy is driving the whole world down the path of global catastrophe. Hell and High Water is nothing less than a wake-up call to the country. It is a searing critique of American environmental and energy policy and a passionate call to action by a writer with a unique command of the science and politics of climate change.

We have ten years, at most, to start making sharp cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions or we will face catastrophic consequences. The good news is that there is something we can do—but only if the leadership of the U.S. government acts immediately and asserts its influence on the rest of the world—in particular such emerging powers as China and India—to join an international effort to stop global warming.

Joseph Romm, an expert in the science, business, and politics of climate change, lays out a plan of action that involves:

  • reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by midcentury
  • adopting a California-style energy-efficiency effort nationwide
  • embracing high-mileage, advanced ”hybrid” cars that can run on both electricity and biofuels

Unfortunately, the required government policies and spending are strongly opposed by conservatives, who have blocked serious action on climate change and continue to publicly deny the dire warnings of scientists. Never before has there been such a sharp divergence between what top scientists know and what policymakers, the general public, and the media believe. And, sadly, never has so much been at stake.

Romm, who ran the largest program in the world that was concentrated on climate solutions, offers an authoritative dissection of this disastrous policy. Hell and High Water goes beyond ideological rhetoric to offer pragmatic solutions to avert the threat of global warming—solutions that must be taken seriously by every American.

The paleoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.

—Wallace Broecker, climate scientist, 1995

The ongoing Arctic warming corresponds to the predictions of the more pessimistic climate models. By extension, the pessimistic scenarios of climate change can be expected to unfold in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

—Louis Fortier, climate scientist, June 2006

We are on the brink of taking the biggest gamble in human history, one that, if we lose, will transform the lives of the next fifty generations. I will not focus here on the history of how we came to our current understanding of global warming or on the thousands of brilliant scientists whose work brings us this knowledge. That story has been well told already, particularly by Spencer Weart, a physicist and historian, who has put on the web his extensive “hypertext history of how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change.”

Similarly, I will not lay out more than briefly the scientific underpinnings for our understanding of global warming or of the extensive and conclusive evidence that climate change is occurring. The case has been made again and again by hundreds of top scientists who have done research and analysis for prestigious bodies such as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences, and the Arctic Council, the nations that border the Arctic Circle, including ours, in its December 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

How strong is the scientific consensus? Back in 2001, President George W. Bush asked the National Academy of Sciences for a report on climate change and on the conclusions of the IPCC assessments on climate change. The eleven-member blue-ribbon panel, which included experts previously skeptical about global warming, concluded: Temperatures are rising because of human activities; the scientific community agrees that most of the rise in the last half-century is likely due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere; and “the stated degree of confidence in the IPCC assessment is higher today than it was 10, or even 5 years ago.”

Back in 2001, Donald Kennedy, Science editor in chief and president emeritus of Stanford University, commented on the steady stream of peer-reviewed reports and articles documenting global climate change appearing in his and other journals: “Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science.” And in December 2004, Science published the results of an analysis of nearly a thousand scientific studies appearing in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003. The conclusion:

This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of other professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.

The strong consensus has grown even stronger because the case has grown even stronger. “Evidence of global warming became so overwhelming in 2004 that now the question is: What can we do about it?” That was Discover magazine in its January 2005 issue, which called the ever-strengthening case for climate change the top science story of the year.

“There can no longer be genuine doubt that human-made gases are the dominant cause of observed warming,” explained James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in April 2005. Hansen led a team of scientists that made “precise measurements of increasing ocean heat content over the past 10 years,” which revealed that the earth is absorbing far more heat than it is emitting into space, confirming what earlier computer models had shown about warming. Hansen called this energy imbalance the “smoking gun” of climate change.

In June 2005 the national science academies of the United States, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement on climate change urging the nations of the world to take prompt action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So far, the world has not listened. Worse, in December 2005, the U.S. government shamelessly blocked the world from acting at an international conference in Montreal that was aimed at developing the next steps for action on climate change.

If you are interested in understanding the detailed evidence for global warming and climate science, if you want to know the answer to key questions such as “How do we know that recent carbon dioxide increases are due to human activities?” or “How do we know that an increase in solar activity is not the cause of recent planetary warming?” bookmark the website This site, run by climate experts, answers these and other questions and discusses the latest findings.

My focus instead is the question of the century: Do we humans have the political will to stop the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica from melting . . . to stop Hell and High Water?

Punching the Climate Beast

Whether human activity will trigger catastrophic climate change depends on two factors: how much heat-trapping, climate-altering greenhouse gases we pour into the atmosphere, and how the climate system responds to those gases. Recent evidence indicates the climate is more sensitive than had been widely thought. Louis Fortier, Canada Research chair on the Response of Arctic Marine Ecosystems to Climate Change at Université Laval, echoed the thinking of many climate scientists when he said at a June 15, 2006, transatlantic conference that we should now expect the more “pessimistic scenarios” of climate change. Let’s try to understand why.

The greenhouse effect has made the life we know possible. The basic physics is straightforward. Our sun pours out intense amounts of visible light, along with radiation, across the electromagnetic spectrum, including ultraviolet and infrared. The sun’s peak intensity is in visible light. Of the solar energy hitting the top of the atmosphere, about 30 percent . . .


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